My mother was Santa when it came to shopping, wrapping, hiding, and organizing the gifts. She went to great lengths to make sure she spent exactly the same amount on each of us. And while I really don’t think we were spoiled, mostly because our parents made sure we appreciated everything, I also don’t remember ever thinking there was something I was expecting but didn’t get; that is, I was never disappointed. Joanie did okay by us.
On Christmas morning as we unwrapped our presents, we’d make sure to say, “Wow, thanks Mom!” even on gifts we saw coming. By the end of the morning, though, we’d make sure to also throw in “and Dad” to the thanks, but he didn’t mind when we didn’t, ever.
And by late morning we drifted into that quiet period after opening gifts when we were engaged in our new items, and Mom was getting dinner ready for the company which inevitably filled the house. Dad would read the paper, and Christmas, which really started when we returned home from Midnight Mass, would do its magic.
But later in the day after everything settled down, Dad would emerge from some quiet place and have a stack of gifts for us, chosen, purchased, and wrapped by him alone.
It was amazing how he seemed to know exactly which ones to choose, and I don’t remember him ever asking what we were interested in; he just observed and took it from there. I have a collection of books I received on Christmas nights through the years which includes All creatures Great and Small by James Herriott, A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins, Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie, Robin Lee Graham’s Dove, and more. He’d hand us each a book he had signed inside with a “Merry Christmas, Love, Dad” and the year. I don’t remember when the tradition started but it had to have been early since I received was The Boy Who Sailed Around the World Alone, which is the kids’ version of Dove. I wasn’t yet a teen.
As the years went by we came to anticipate the books earlier in the day, though he usually held out. There were some exceptions; like one year when he gave us each money. I bought Illusions by Richard Bach and asked Dad to sign “Merry Christmas, Love, Dad” in the book anyway. Another year he replaced the books with Broadway tickets to see Katherine Hepburn in “West Side Waltz.”
It became my favorite part of the day. It wasn’t just the books, though. While I cherish the memories of Christmas evenings reading on the couch or stretched out on the floor, it was also a specific moment I got to share with my father and keep up on a shelf.
I have kept the tradition going since my son was born. Winnie the Pooh, Curious George, Hamlet, anything by Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz, or Thor Heyerdahl, and more fill his shelves. We really do formulate our lives based upon what we’re exposed to growing up. Michael has the kindness of Pooh, the curiosity of George, Schultz’s sense of humor, and Heyerdahl’s sense of adventure. Go figure. I try and wait until the end of the day, but it doesn’t always work out that way. One year my father bought him a small collection of classics, another year a Peanuts Christmas Treasury. He keeps that one right next to his Works of Shakespeare.
I understand now that Dad didn’t just give us books; he gave us his sense of understanding, of knowing, of remembering and anticipating. When I look at the books Dad gave me, they absolutely anticipate my life—music, adventure, the sea. I’m not sure the books influenced me as much as Dad understood something about me which the books brought to light. I was never the avid reader Dad was or my son has always been. And I think he knew that too, choosing books which had less to do with the art and more to do with the dreams that a good book can unleash.
As the years moved on and we all moved out, we started giving him books; he loved to read. We had to coordinate sometimes so we didn’t get him the same one, and I don’t think we ever did. He received volumes about Brooklyn, about baseball and golf, about history—one of his passions. So when I started working on a book about Michael and me training across Siberia, I knew it was going to be more about fathers and sons, ancestry and posterity, than about locale. That is why the book, The Iron Scar, is dedicated to both him and my son. I want it to be a book he would have bought for me, signed, wrapped, and given to me late in the day, just when I thought I was getting tired, when his gift would wake me up and send me on some adventure well into the night, send me, as the Madman Dr. William Minor once pointed out, “to the end of the world on the wings of words.”
We don’t leave home when we are eighteen or twenty-two. We depart nearly immediately upon learning words, stringing them together, making associations with objects and then ideas and then possibility and hope. We cross borders when we’re toddlers and time travel through adolescence. From Gilgamesh on we slip this mortal coil, escape depression with Styron, evade anxiety with Balzac, and relish in the quixotic realm of Cervantes. Every Christmas afternoon my father gave us books filled with foreshadowing. For me, on so many levels from travel to profession to livelihood, whether he knew it or not, he anticipated my life.
Merry Christmas Dad. Thank you for the words.